I recognized them at the Kindergarten Family Dinner. Every September produces a new crop of the species—the parents whose eldest is starting kindergarten. They're the ones trying to get a five-year-old to eat the PTO's pizza offerings while chasing a toddler or swaying a baby in a carrier. Or both. They're frantic, confused, and maybe even a bit ashamed that they don't know what exactly they're doing. A mom I knew from preschool flashed me a panicked look as I approached. “How do people do this?" she spluttered without preamble.
By “this" I knew exactly what she meant: two adults, two jobs, two kids, two schools that close often and at random, rarely-overlapping intervals. Career advancement (or just not getting canned), soccer, family dinner, dentist appointments, the PTO, hypoallergenic birthday treats, playdates, after-school care. The freakin' Science Fair.
I had no magic bullet to offer. “Nobody knows what they're doing. Nothing makes sense and it's all a mess. Everybody's patching it together however they can." The look on her face as she received this information was equal parts frustration and relief.
It's true. And I think people need to hear it, to know they're not alone in this choppy surf. However, since this is my second ride on this merry-go-round, I do have some ideas about where to look for help.
1. Know what you're doing is really hard, and nobody else is acing it either
Look, we live in the only industrialized nation without mandated parental leave. Our public school calendars are calibrated for an agrarian society where children worked in the fields. Preschool and toddler care are astronomically expensive (my monthly bill last year was higher than my mortgage payment). Let's take a deep breath and just say, It's all cray-cray.
2. Construct your village
Reach out to other parents in your child's class and grade level. If you're not there to touch base at drop-off or pick-up time, look for school social events, a Facebook group for your school, and ask your child's teacher for an email list. (For heaven's sake, please let everybody have your email address. We all need each other.)
What are the other parents doing about after school care? What about that weird 10-minute window for drop-off when there's no parking? Be open about what you need, and look for openings to offer help where you can, whether it's sharing a nugget of information or offering a standing play date. It absolutely takes a village.
3. Sign 'em up
Sit down with a glass of wine and tackle that stack of papers that came home the first week of school. Clues are hiding within. The flyer for a kung fu class where the teacher walks her students from the school to her studio. Yes! The after-school enrichment program—Animation! Knitting!
One of the biggest mistakes I've committed over the years is not hiring enough child care. No guilt. You need coverage, and your kids are going to meet some fabulous people and try some amazing new things. By the same token, don't sign them up for things you need to drive them to at 3:30 pm, unless they can carpool with a peer (remember your village).
4. Seek flex, at work and at home
Full-time work is often more than 40 hours a week, but which 40? Take a look at your work week and consider proposing small or large restructuring that might improve the situation for everyone. You're being proactive about maximizing your productivity, not caving under unbearable time pressures! Ask your partner to do the same and multiply your flex. Ask other families how they manage. Some have one full-time worker and one part-time or more flexibly arranged schedule; some have grandparents and great babysitters in their back pockets (try not to die of jealousy). If you're thinking of changing jobs, make flexibility a priority; otherwise you might find yourself spending all of that hard-earned raise on additional child care.
5. Set boundaries
Saying no is hard, but let's meditate on this: What is enough?
Even when your insides are squirming with the desire to please everyone, you'll need to find your backbone. It's okay to fake it 'til you make it. Portray confidence as best you can and eventually you start to feel it.
Set the timer on your phone to go off 15 minutes before you have to leave work to pick up the kids, whatever time that is, and a second alarm when you really have to go. When the first one goes off, it's time to wrap things up. I use about five minutes to finish my train of thought and jot down notes for the next day, because I know that standing in the doorway of my supervisor's office can eat up the other ten. When that second alarm goes off, and she hears it, she knows what it means, and we both shrug. Gotta go!
Likewise, you don't have to make cupcakes for the bake sale. Schools have endless needs, but look for your niche. Choose one way to contribute, whether it's an evening of employing your design know-how on the PTO calendar, or attending once-a-month committee meetings, or just sending in money instead of hawking wrapping paper. (Bulletin: You don't have to sell wrapping paper to your colleagues.) Then let go of guilt, you're pitching in where you can.
6. Master the calendars
Spend an evening figuring out how to share calendars with people in Google Calendar or whatever program you use. If you're the person who takes the kids to soccer, but he's picking them up, you both need the sports schedule in your phones. Don't worry, you can control permissions so the folks at work can't see that you're at the podiatrist, they just see that you're busy. Add school closures, ballet recitals, music lessons.
Whether you use a paper calendar (like this one) or an electronic one, keep it consistent, keep it handy, and share the info with your partner and other caregivers. Evening check-ins with my partner have become a part of our routine; we both look at our calendars and tasks for the next day and make sure we're covered with pickups, drop-offs, permission slips, and the like.
7. Communicate often
When you're working, it's hard to get face time with your child's teacher. Don't feel bad, thank God for email and then use it. Most times it's easier to describe your kid's spelling foibles when she's not standing right there rooting through your purse for snacks. Make any requests clear and direct, and always thank them for their time, since answering emails often happens above and beyond their school days. If your child's teacher doesn't use email, send notes to the teacher using your kid's school folder or however he brings home school paperwork. For best results, use a sealed, labeled envelope.
8. Opt for easy
Cooking, bill-paying, house-cleaning, laundry, lawn care, how many of these things can you afford to outsource? Anything you can't hire out, demote it down the priorities list, then designate one person in your household who's responsible for it.
A playground conversation with another working mom contributed this “aha" moment when she said that now that her husband was in charge of all laundry, there was no discussing the laundry. It was his turf, end of story. She had taken complete management of the kitchen. Each partner gave the other their full confidence to handle their chores as they saw fit. Who takes out the trash? Who walks the dog? Talk these out with your partner, and try to relax your standards on these fronts too. I won't even tell you how long it's been since I mopped my kitchen floor.
9. Plan meals and shop once a week
This seems like it's going to be a pain in the ass. And the first three times you do it, it's totally a pain in the ass. After that, it's life-altering. All kinds of resources are popping up to help families with the perennial problem of walking in the door every evening with growling bellies and no idea what to cook. Some of my favorites are the meal-planning section of The Kitchn, the drag-and-drop meal planner from Cooking Light, and (yes, another parent taught me) Cookin' with Google, a custom search that lets you type in ingredients from your fridge and get recipes that use them.
Most Saturdays I construct my weekly plan with a mix of things that need used up before they rot, things I personally want to eat, and things I can make really quickly, taking the week's activities into account. This means that grocery shopping happens just once a week, and that saves me time and money. You can read more of my evangelizing about meal-planning here.
10. Make time for yourself
You're rolling your eyes at me right now, and I don't blame you. It sounds completely impossible. Periodically it gets that way for me too, and I have to steer myself back to self-care. I once took a night class on self-care, and just going to it once a week was fantastic. I want my kids to see me happy, and to know what I care about beyond my breakfast cereal preferences.
My husband is a musician and plays music one night a week. That night is sacred. I put the kids to bed, he picks up his guitar at a friend's house and for a few hours gets to nurture that thing he loved in the BC era (before children, before jobs became careers).
Even if you're sure you're too tired to leave the house, drag yourself to the closest cafe for a couple of hours, or take a walk, preferably with a friend who can laugh with you about all the ridiculous parts. Wherever you begin is a good place to begin.
11. Work to change it
Alongside all this flexing and stretching and talking about how mind-bendingly hard it all is, let's work on making it better, for everyone. When I rage about being squeezed from every angle, it helps to put some of that energy into advocating for change on a policy level. What would make it work better?
Organizations like Moms Rising focus on legislation for paid parental leave and paid sick leave on the state and federal levels. Apps like 5 calls make it easy to contact legislators, even if all you have is five minutes in the parking lot. Look for candidates in your own backyard who talk about the importance of family-friendly policies. Yep, most times these are going to be women.
In your own workplace, support flexible work policies and those who are using them, and work to create a culture where people can be vocal about their family needs without recrimination. Let's all make it better than we found it.